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An 'OMG' Text from 100 Years Ago

Century-old text-speak? r u cr8z?

By Rich_Maloof Aug 10, 2012 4:18PM

Photo: Photo: Tetra Images/AlamyU R not going to believe this, but a new order
of knighthood is on the tapis. Surprised  OMG, right? 

If that reads to you like a text between two gamers playing Final Fantasy, you’re not entirely off the mark. It’s more like an exchange between an admiral in the Royal Navy and Winston Churchill, who were playing war games one hundred years ago. So we added the emoticon, BFD. But the British admiral did use “OMG” a century before his latter-day countrymen would be texting it in response to Kate Middleton’s latest choice of hat.

Could the first instance of modern text-speak really have been communicated so very long before the age of 4G, Wi-Fi, and iPhones? Here’s the actual excerpt from the letter sent to Churchill in 1917:

"I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis
 — O.M.G   (Oh! My God!) — Shower it on the Admiralty!!".

Lord John Arbuthnot Fisher, a celebrated admiral and snappy dresser, was clearly ahead of his time. His own middle name looks like an accidental cramming of letters that Autotext didn’t know what to do with. And the exclamation points, sheesh — there were fewer used when Glee 3D came out. Shower it on the admiralty, indeed.

It will take etymologists a little longer to confirm whether OMG had been used prior to Fisher’s letter, though apparently it was uncommon enough that he had to spell it out for Winston. But the history of using abbreviations and truncated language to communicate with maximized efficiency goes way back. We used it just half a century ago in telegrams and cables, too, since telecommunications companies of the time charged by the number of words (they’ve been gouging us forever). Telegraph style drops pronouns and articles. Stop. Death of language is nigh. Stop. Please. Stop.

New York Times blogger John McWhorter explains that after 200 centuries of oral communication, beginning with grunts in the cave, written language first evolved only about 5,500 years ago as a means of documenting and sharing the spoken word. Now text emerges as a hyper-efficient means of representing not just the written word but, in McWhorter’s words, “fingered speech.” It’s written conversation, an entirely novel form of communication. While highfalutin lovers of the language arts see SMS as just one step ahead of thumping sticks on rocks, it actually represents the progress of a highly advanced society. Don’t sweat it, Shakespeare. You can keep the pen.

Photo: Tetra Images/Alamy


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